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Age-friendly Housing Competition Solves Two Problems

by Louis on February 9, 2016

We need more age friendly housing. Most of it will come from our existing housing stock. The most direct and cheapest way to get what we need is to update individual homes. Home Today, Home Tomorrow, a design competition from Home Matters America, is focused on home renovation. With partners AARP, the AARP Foundation and the Wells Fargo Foundation this program will reach design and building professionals as well as the general public about how to do update our homes.

What do I mean by age friendly housing? I mean places people choose, where they can be safe, get help safely and maintain control of their lives and dignity.  Of course homes that meet this criteria are useful for everyone. There is no reason they cannot be beautiful, including subtle changes that make them useful to more people. In that respect it is just good design…or in fact, better design.

As I prepared to write this blog I downloaded the competition entry materials including the floor plan and house photos. The house is really nice. The floor plan and siting makes it a good candidate for the renovations. I have recommended that clients purchase and renovate similar homes quite a few times in the past.  This house serves the competition’s purpose of making the information widely relevant and valuable very well.memphis house

Why is this competition important?

This topic is important for our sense of civic pride and responsibility. We must find good ways to care for our older citizens with grace and dignity. It is also important for our nation’s budget and healthcare system.  Increasing size of older populations, health care reform, desire and economies are rapidly shifting care from senior housing and facilities to homes. The conversation is growing. Presumptions about the place will shift soon. All Americans should have the opportunity not just to get older but to age well. This competition is part of the dialogue that will lead to a solution.

I am encouraged by this competition and increased interest in aging in place remodeling projects because I see too many projects that don’t get it right. Though the idea of age friendly housing is not too hard to understand, it is not so easy to get it right because most people don’t know what to do. Though lots of information is available it is not making it into the right hands. That leads to guessing, often well meant, but guessing nonetheless. This competition will help get the right information out there.

What happens because the right information is not well known?

I’ve consulted in too many homes where the client asked a contractor (and even a few supposedly competent architects) for aging in place renovations but did not get what they needed. Renovating homes but not getting it right is frustrating and very expensive. Clients are not just spending scarce resources but very disappointed, even angry, when it doesn’t work.

I see two reasons for this unfortunate situation.

  1. Few people, in construction or otherwise, get the process of aging –progressive.  Hopefully, home updates are done before they are needed to meet health challenges.  That means we design and build for who we may be in the future, not who we are when the project starts. The progressive nature of aging and the need to prepare in advance jibe well with this competition and universal design. Well designed homes are good for everyone.
  2. Projects are based in conventional wisdom rather than good information.  I have a whole slide show of bad ramp photos I snap while riding around. The most common problem is ramping to the stoop, still one full and very difficult or impossible Mount McKinley step from the interior floor. Here is one example, lovingly built by neighbors but not solving the problem.toobadw:arrowSee this elevator story for another fiasco. In my (rare) gracious moments I call these well-meaning mistakes. But the dollar cost to the client and the eventual disappointment when the client’s effort to prepare is dashed by the reality, test my charity.

This photo shows a bath design disappointment I have seen WAY too often that falls in the wrong conventional wisdom category.Landy shower

What is wrong? The non-grab bar hand held shower holder is too high for a seated user, especially from this seat which is built-in it too far from the handheld and the shower controls. Not building in the seat  would provide a big open flexible space to place a shower chair just where the user and helpers want it. Not having the curb reduces the trip hazard and makes it possible to use a rolling shower commode chair. A curbless shower also adds floor space for the user and helper to maneuver near the toilet. This project, done better, could serve much better.

This competition will bring wide circulation to these valuable ideas. Kudos.

BUT…you knew there was going to be a but …didn’t you?

Read this excerpt from the AARP competition announcement:

“We know that the vast majority of people want to remain in their homes and communities for as long as possible,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, AARP Foundation president. “More than 19 million low-income 50-plus households struggle with unaffordable or inadequate housing and inadequate housing and we must act now to implement innovative housing solutions.  These design competitions, with broad outreach, including startups and architects, fuel solutions that will help address our nation’s housing needs….
The Re-defining Home: Home Today, Home Tomorrow contest challenges architects to create new standards in housing design so people can stay in their home throughout a variety of life stages. The goal of the design challenge is to generate universal design elements and build an attractive, adaptable and affordable home of the future that speaks to and showcases livability, by promoting both aesthetically- and functionally-appealing designs for better living.”

So my BUT question: Why does the competition announcement trumpet low income, struggle and unaffordable? Low income and affordable are legitimizing buzzwords in the aging field. But those same words say subsidized housing, limited budget and minimally attractive to folks in the design and building world as well as the general public. This categorizes the competition, tying it to unattractive and “other”ness, meaning NOT about me. The folks we want to reach – from design and construction as well as consumers are turned off by this language.

The need for age friendly housing is not limited to people who are low income. I learned this early in my career serving folks with a million dollars in equity and other savings shut out of their home after a stroke or fall. These ideas, this competition, should not be directed to any income segment.

The house doesn’t say budget so the announcement doesn’t need to either. It is not too late. I recommend taking those words OUT of the project and press materials. The competition will have far greater appeal and impact. We need it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Elna April 25, 2016 at 4:26 am

Hello Louis,
Great posts !
Thank you for sharing and posting your article I found it intersting !
Keep posting !


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